Breaching the Wall

John Garvey, president of the Catholic University of America, a former dean of Boston College Law School and co-author of “Religion and the Constitution,” had an excellent op-ed at the Washington Post Friday: For the government, what counts as Catholic?

He likens the HHS employer mandate for contraception, sterilization and abortifacient coverage to “compelling Jehovah’s Witnesses to salute the flag, or Quakers to fight, or Jews to eat pork.” But then he shifts to separation of church and state.

Or so he says he’s shifting. I’m not convinced that freedom from compulsion to act against one’s faith is really a different topic than separation of Church and state, but let’s move on.

What idiot ever started the idea that only the Church can breach the “wall of separation”? Au contraire, mon frère. As a matter of law, only the government can breach it. Maybe the Church can do things that are provocatively political, or can violate the “spirit” of separation, but the limits of the Constitution are, fer cryin’ out loud, limits on government. The Constitution is, first and foremost, so much the charter of our federal system of  government that there was considerable debate about the need for a Bill of Rights to define government’s relationship to individuals and what we today call “mediating structures.”

But the current Administration is tacitly pushing the statist spin on separation again and again and again.

There’s an analogy to the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate, where not engaging in commerce by not buying insurance is re-cast as commerce within the power of Congress to regulate. Here, it’s rather the opposite: activities that everyone has always thought religious (not that atheists can’t do the same things, of course) are insufficiently religious for exemption from government’s heavy hand.

This invasive approach to religious institutions is, I am afraid, becoming all too common. Recently, in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission , the Supreme Court considered whether the government could regulate the firing of a religion teacher. The teacher, who had filed a disability claim, was fired for suing the Lutheran grade school rather than settling her claim out of court. The commission and the solicitor general argued that the government need not give any special deference to employee relations at religious organizations. A unanimous court found this view “remarkable” and the government’s action unconstitutional.

In two other recent cases, the National Labor Relations Board’s regional directors have held that Manhattan College in Riverdale, N.Y., and St. Xavier University in Chicago are not Catholic schools for purposes of exemption from the National Labor Relations Act, which regulates collective bargaining. The cases stressed that the colleges do not require students to attend Mass and do not engage in “indoctrination” or “proselytizing.” Rather, they observe norms of academic freedom. They also hire non-Catholic faculty, and their boards of trustees are dominated by lay people.

Notice the similarity to HHS’s view of what counts as Catholic. A “real” Catholic college would be inward-looking. It would inculcate religious values and censor contrary views. It would hire Catholics and not other people. Its board would be dominated by clergy. It would admit Catholic students but not others.

There is a pattern to these cases. The government has been eager to regulate the behavior of churches in ways more to its liking. It does this by defining religion down, so that only the most rigid and separatist groups are exempt. The rest are, for constitutional purposes, no different from the Jaycees or the Elks Club. We might say that the wall of separation is intact, but the government has made it so small that it encloses nothing more than a flower bed.

Thank you, President Garvey.

I’m starting to entertain the thought that a litmus test for bad guys versus good guys is that the former want to limit religion by arbitrary state redefinition, the latter to limit government to the terms of the Constitution.

I’ve been concerned with religious freedom pretty keenly since well before I set foot in law school, and I know that this issue is one where, whatever his other defects, Romney stands in stark contrast to Obama and his administration. “We’re all Catholics now.”

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G.K. Chesterton on Biblicism

Catholic writer/blogger Mark Shea today delivered up this Chestertonian gem, in response to a question about the Dan Brown-ish sort of “lost gospels” nonsense, and how Evangelicals who get a lot of book larnin’ are apt to throw over the Bible, as has pop scholar Bart Ehrsman:

Every great heretic had always exhibit three remarkable characteristics in combination. First, he picked out some mystical idea from the Church’s bundle or balance of mystical ideas. Second, he used that one mystical idea against all the other mystical ideas. Third (and most singular), he seems generally to have had no notion that his own favourite mystical idea was a mystical idea, at least in the sense of a mysterious or dubious or dogmatic idea. With a queer uncanny innocence, he seems always to have taken this one thing for granted. He assumed it to be unassailable, even when he was using it to assail all sorts of similar things. The most popular and obvious example is the Bible. To an impartial pagan or sceptical observer, it must always seem the strangest story in the world; that men rushing in to wreck a temple, overturning the altar and driving out the priest, found there certain sacred volumes inscribed “Psalms” or “Gospels”; and (instead of throwing them on the fire with the rest) began to use them as infallible oracles rebuking all the other arrangements. If the sacred high altar was all wrong, why were the secondary sacred documents necessarily all right? If the priest had faked his Sacraments, why could he not have faked his Scriptures? Yet it was long before it even occurred to those who brandished this one piece of Church furniture to break up all the other Church furniture that anybody could be so profane as to examine this one fragment of furniture itself. People were quite surprised, and in some parts of the world are still surprised, that anybody should dare to do so.

This is one of many issues on which Catholic and Orthodox traditions (which were unified for the first millennium) are in substantial agreement. We would differ in emphasis if not in substance from Shea’s oversimplified version how the canon of Scripture came to be the canon (from which Protestant Bibles omit a number of books, by the way), but we agree on this:

  • The early Church had no canon other that the Old Testament, with lots of evidence that the Septuagint was favored.
  • The early Church had a vital Christianity before the first book of the New Testament had been written.
  • Gnosticism beset the Church early on, and many gnostic pseudo-Christian documents were written.
  • The Church rejected those writings in practice and eventually in precept.

I’m not foolish enough to try to top Chesterton’s colorful fable of how today’s “conservative Evangelicals” treat the Church which gave them the Bible they misuse to abuse the Church.

To be deep in history is to cease being Protestant.”

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Radical Monogamy

Father Thomas Hopko, Dean Emeritus of St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Seminary, has a fresh podcast with as clear, powerful, and convicting account as I can ever recall hearing on the Christian view of marriage. My outline, in tabular form, follows:

0:00 God’s fidelity toward Israel, the Church and humanity generally is likened to a human marriage.
3:30 “Marriage” other than as between a man and a woman is nonsensical.
4:15 Marriage between a man and a woman must be completely and totally faithful forever. There’s no bigamy, polygamy or extramarital relations allowed.
4:50 This is like God’s fidelity to mankind. One of the titles of Jesus is Bridegroom and the Church is His bride.
8:00 The Bride and Groom imagery for God’s relationship to humanity runs through the who Old Testament, most pervasively in Hosea, but also in Isaiah 54. Often the Bride is faithless; the Bridegroom never.
12:00 Jeremiah 31:31-34
13:20 Ezekiel 16
15:50 Hosea is all about God’s faithfulness and his Bride’s unfaithfulness.
18:50 The Christian teaching about marriage is radical, unconditional monogamy.
19:10 Sexual intercourse belongs only within the committed conjugal relationship of one man and one woman. No sexual, genital, erotic relationship is to take place outside the community of marriage.
19:30 True union, of bodies made for that purpose, cannot take place except between a man and a woman. Otherwise, it’s anal or oral – not a true “one flesh” union, which tends toward the creation of children.
20:20 The Song of Songs foreshadows the Christian union. Husband and wife must first be brothers and sisters in the faith.
22:40 We Christians mustn’t have affairs and such because we’re modeling God’s love for humanity.
24:20 Celibate virginity and fully committed conjugal marriage are the two Christian options.
26:30 The Old Testament allowance of divorce was for hardness of heart. It was not so in the beginning.
28:00 The Sermon on the Mount on marriage.
30:30 Joseph may be the only truly monogamous Old Testament figure.
34:00 Father Hopko’s personal opinion [shared with C.S. Lewis] is that it’s not realistic for Christians to expect non-Christians or heretical Christians to follow this standard.
35:30 Sexual relations between unmarried persons are not allowed, so sexual relations between members of the same sex are not allowed.
36:20 Sexuality is good, but is for use in the right context.
37:00 The strict Christian teaching is that one does not remarry even after the death of a spouse.
38:15 Even the New Testament, though, permits remarriage of, for instance, widows who can’t control themselves, which is precedent for the Church’s pastoral leniency at times.
39:30 St. John Chrysostom’s Homily 20 on the Letter to the Ephesians, Homily 12 on Colossians, Homily 10 on I Timothy.
41:30 Fr. Hopko thinks sexual fidelity is an important test of character.
42:00 No erotic sexual contact for unmarried persons does not mean absence of intimate friendships. You love everyone equally and have sex with nobody.
42:35 John Chrysostom’s letter to a young widow encourages the widow not to remarry even though it might be allowed. The Rite for second marriage in the Orthodox Church is penitential.
44:20 There is no “till death do we part” in Orthodox marriage.
45:00 Leniency is not allowed among Orthodox clergy, who are held to the strict standard.
49:20 When Fr. Hopko gave a talk on Christian marriage at Vassar 40 years ago, he was asked if he really believed it, and when he said he did, the questioner said “it would take a miracle to pull that off.” Fr. Hopko replied “I’m very happy to let you all know that at least one person in the auditorium really understood my talk.”
51:00 With human beings, this is impossible, but with God, all things are possible.

That no sexual, genital, erotic relationship is to take place outside the community of marriage is setting a standard higher than “no penetration” or “no vaginal ejaculation” before marriage. It is setting the more demanding standard of chastity.

It may be tempting to say “Those standards are impossible. It would take a miracle to pull them off,” and then, “How little can I get by with?”

But remember, asking “How little can I get by with?,” when it comes to God, is pretty conclusive proof that you’re not doing enough to “get by.” The first and greatest commandment requires that we love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength. The “how little” question comes from despondency or rebellion, not from love.

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